Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Watching Poker, Watching Sports

Made it home yesterday in one piece. Am still looking to catch up on sleep, but am reasonably rested and glad to be staying put for the next month or so until I rejoin the WSOP Circuit in for a couple of events April.

I’ve been contributing to the Ocelot Sports blog lately, writing alongside Dr. Pauly and a few others. Last week we did a couple of “round table” posts in which we took a shot picking the over/unders for win totals for all 30 Major League Baseball teams this year. Here are those posts, if you’re curious, one each for the American League and the National League.

I’ve been posting a couple of times a week over there since December. Recent contributions included a post about my ambivalence regarding NASCAR (despite living right in the heart of race country) and another about how all the conference realignments and rapid turnover of rosters these days is affecting my college hoops watching.

Writing about sports over the last few months has gotten me thinking more specifically about sports writing, and in fact as I was helping cover that WSOP Circuit event at Caesars Atlantic City I was again considering how much a poker tournament resembles a sporting event, especially when it comes to reporting on it.

We’ve gone over the whole “poker as a sport” debate many times over by now, and so I’m not going to restart it today. I’m thinking way back to a post I wrote here way back in 2007 responding to an especially obtuse ESPN column by Mark Kreidler about poker. I’m also thinking about one of my now-scrubbed-from-the-internet Epic Poker columns titled “Poker As a Sport,” which I’ll look back at again and if it seems worthy I might repost here on Friday. (EDIT [added 3/15/13]: As that piece seemed kind of redundant, I decided against posting it, instead posting one about the use of poker in the film Havana.)

I’ve always maintained that poker is best thought of as a game and not a sport, although as I say the dynamics of a tournament most certainly resemble certain sports, particularly individual ones like golf or tennis. Thus does reporting on a poker tournament often have a lot in common with other kinds of sports writing.

For one thing, like with sports writing, writing about poker is especially “results oriented,” with a primary focus on outcomes and reporting winners and losers. We frequently fall into talking about things like momentum and “comebacks” and players “dominating” opponents or the field as a whole, too. And we focus a lot on “play-by-play”-type relating of hands, narrowly concentrating on specific actions, especially when the contest is still ongoing.

However, I can also think of some significant differences between reporting on a poker tournament and, say, writing an article about a game of basketball or football or baseball or soccer or some other sport.

One obvious difference has to do with the fact that just as poker is a “partial information game” for the players, the same goes for reporters. We can’t see everything, obviously, and so cannot report comprehensively on even a single hand. Even with hands that go to showdown, we never know what other players folded. Unlike a basketball game where all of the actions by all ten players are plain for everyone to see, such is never the case in poker.

We also lack a lot of contextual information, too, when reporting certain “plays” or hands in a poker tournament. Unless we’re at a final table where we’ve witnessed every hand played, we generally don’t know everything about what has happened in earlier hands involving players whom we now see involved in a hand against each other. (Here is an old post titled “Anatomy of a Hand Report” in which I explored this point at length.) Meanwhile, when a play happens on the football field, we know all of the plays that went before and how they might potentially relate to the present one.

We could take this discussion of context even further, actually, to talk about the great variety of individuals who participate in a poker tournament, some of whom are well known to us and many of whom are not. There aren’t really any major sporting events where an “unknown” turns up and performs in a way that makes a difference in the outcome, whereas in a poker tournament that is a routine occurrence. (They even win, sometimes.)

There are more differences between reporting on poker tourneys and reporting on sporting events. In fact, for people who don’t play poker or who aren’t interested in the game, the contrast between watching a card game and a real sport couldn’t be greater.

But for those of us who understand and enjoy the game, watching a tourney play out really can resemble watching a sport. So it makes sense sometimes to report on it in ways that are similar.

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